Tuesday, 28 June 2016

A smile for brexit, Storks like San Francisco Chinese, a fountain flowing with wine. And much more besides

A French policeman flagged us down as we crossed the border from Germany. He walked over to us, his face set, his air threatening. As we let down a window, he leaned in.

“Brexit or no Brexit?” he asked, having spotted our British number plates.

“No Brexit, no Brexit,” we chorused.

“OK, passez,” he assured us.

We’ve just spent a few packed days in the town where we used to live. That’s Kehl, in Germany, which has been a district of the great German city of Straßburg, or a market town opposite the great French city of Strasbourg, depending not so much on the geography but on the history of the region.

One place we visited was Basel, where there’s a celebration going on in honour of the sixth centennial of the publication the translation of the New Testament by Erasmus of Rotterdam, who lived the latter part of his life in the Swiss city. Among the many quotes from the great scholar, I particularly liked one in which he says that he wants to be a citizen of the world, at home anywhere or, better still, nowhere.

One of the Erasmus quotations scattered around Basel
Now there’s a thought for the dividing world we live in.

We visited cousins in Basel, and were struck by the storks’ nest on the chimneys of the house opposite.

“The council sent people up to destroy the nest as soon as it was made, but the storks rebuilt it within three days. By the time the authorities sent back people, there were already eggs and it was too late.”

This reminded me of a story we were told in San Francisco’s Chinatown years ago.

When the Chinese community first arrived it was granted some fairly lousy, worthless land outside the city limits. But then San Francisco grew and had to spread all around, forcing the price and desirability of the Chinese area up.

In 1906 came the devastating earthquake and fire. Chinatown was destroyed. The whites of San Francisco saw a way of making something positive of the disaster. They summoned a meeting of the council to take back control of the Chinese district.

Alas, it took two weeks for the council to meet. And in that time the Chinese had completely rebuilt their homes and businesses and it was too late to drive them out.

Hence today’s Chinatown.

Just like the pair of storks we saw in Basel.

We also visited a village in deepest Alsace, in the wine country.

That’s Alsace, the great province of eastern France, not Elsaß, which was more than once a flourishing province of western Germany.

In between some of the vines, we found cherry trees rich in fruit, ridiculously late, because of the lousy weather this year. We weren’t complaining though, as we picked and ate handfuls of different varieties of glorious cherries at every tree we reached.

Joy on a country walk
In the local village, we visited the fountain which will, at the annual feast day in a couple of weeks’ time, be flowing with wine instead of water. The sign above the fountain informs the visitor that it celebrates the moment when, by decree of the royal court in Colmar, the people of the village were freed of the feudal requirement to pay a tax in wine, in 1897.

Royal decree? In 1897? When France was firmly republican? Well, Alsace was Elsaß then and anything but firmly French. Colmar was a provincial city of the German Empire.

The village has a massive Protestant church and an only slightly less massive Catholic one. It also boasts are well-restored synagogue, though no real Jewish community any more. Still, the building’s impressive.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Jews of the village were pretty poor (few of any community were particularly wealthy). So many of the boys and young men would set out for the ‘fifth voyage.’ Their parents would find them enough money to get to the French coast somewhere, where they’d take menial service in one of the great transatlantic liners. Five crossings would allow them to pay for their passage, and at the end of the fifth they would leave the ship in the States and set out to make their fortunes.

Many did, and sent back funds to support their families and also endow their home village with a good synagogue. Which stands there to this day, near the Protestant and Catholic churches, as a mute monument to a fine state of affairs when three great faiths were able to live side by side without tearing each other apart.

Erasmus I suspect would have approved. As do I. It was an arrangement that should attract a smile as fulsome as the French policeman gave us, after he’d finished ribbing us about the Brexit vote.

That was a good experience. Brexit hasn’t given me much else to smile about.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Brexit: the triumph of Project Fear

When backers of the campaign for Britain to remain in the EU pointed out the dire consequences of leaving the EU, they were accused by Brexiters of running Project Fear.

It’s true that statements of such as Britain’s soon to be ex-Prime Minister David Cameron, rather overstated the case. He sometimes seemed to suggest that leaving the EU would plunge Britain into immediate bankruptcy or trigger a third World War. Still, it will certainly have consequences that, if not quite so fearsome as those, will be pretty dire all the same.

For instance, the US and the EU are in the midst of negotiations for a trade deal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP. It’s massively skewed towards serving US interests at the cost of Europe’s. In particular, it could damage Britain’s NHS by forcing it open to US private corporations.

A number of European voices – but not Britain’s – have been raised against TTIP provisions. Indeed, Germany’s Angela Merkel has said the whole Treaty might have to be abandoned. The US is going to have to shift if they want an agreement in place.

Brexiters argue that Britain will do better negotiating a deal directly with the US. However, Barack Obama has made it clear that a trade agreement with Britain alone would not be a high priority for the US. They would, no doubt, put one in place, but does anyone believe that it would be on more advantageous terms than the EU can obtain? Would Britain be in a position, deprived of its membership of the EU free trade area, to resist the terms the US dictates?

Another issue that constantly re-emerged during the campaign concerned fisheries policy. But European waters have been over-fished for decades, and stocks were drastically declining. A long process of negotiation led to agreements on preservation that everyone resented – compromises, by their nature, often please no-one – but at last stocks are beginning to grow again. Does anyone really believe that re-introducing a free-for-all will improve the situation?

Then there’s the break-up of the UK itself. The Scots voted massively to remain in the EU. Within hours of the announcement of a Brexit win, the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, told us a new Scottish Independence Referendum was back on the table.

Does anyone believe that the Scots would not be likely, on this occasion, to vote in favour? Last time the EU said they wouldn’t look kindly on an application for membership from an independent Scotland. Does anyone believe that they might not, this time, be only too happy to have them join?

So there are things to fear from the decision for Brexit. Pointing it out doesn’t mean the Remain campaign ‘Project Fear.’

On the contrary, the party of the fearful was the Brexit side. The bold choice is to work with others, because you have to lower your defences as your partners lower theirs, to enable cooperation. These are exciting challenges to meet, but they expose us to risks just as they open opportunities for mutual benefits.

The fearful response is to turn our backs on the opportunities, in order to avoid the risks. Frightened people want more defences against the outside world. In the Brexit debate, the code for that fear was “immigration.” Immigrants were blamed for our ills, and the EU was blamed for immigration.

It was the fear campaign that voted against the EU. Sadly, they’ve only prepared new disappointments for themselves, because what they feared wasn’t caused by the EU. The British economy has institutionalised precariousness at work, so no one can feel their job is safe. It has put downward pressure on wages, as people lose jobs and can only find work at lower salaries. It has starved our great public institutions, the NHS, Education, the Police, so people find it increasingly difficult to count on the services they’ve felt in the past were theirs.

Neither the EU nor immigration was responsible, however. These are consequences of a policy of austerity, which isn’t delivering growth, but is delivering pain. Brexit isn’t going to improve that. On the contrary, it’s going to make things worse.

As predicted, the Brexit vote has precipitated teh resignation of David Cameron. Those suffering the pain of austerity realised he was a pretty lousy Prime Minister. However, his likely successor, Boris Johnson, will be far worse. Even more frightening is the figure in the shadows behind him, the man who was most openly triumphing over the Brexit vote, UKIP leader Nigel Farage. His influence will be toxic: if the referendum campaign had a merit, it was above all in exposing him as the racist we always knew he was.

Is this the most frightening face of Brexit?
Hard right-winger Nigel Farage celebrating take-off
He’s on the up and up. The problem with the style of approach adopted by the likes of Cameron is that it only encourages the hard right represented by such as Farage. Throw them a concession, and they demand more. Cameron only called the referendum to satisfy the right wing of his own party, and look what happened. Now we’ve had a Brexit vote, and the hard right is cock-a-hoop.

That’s where fear got us. And if you think that what’s about to happen now is a lot worse than what the Brexiters feared before – well, I can only agree with you.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

June the 23rd: a choice of walls or bridges

Is our world one that needs more walls, or more bridges?

The British electorate has that decision to make on 23 June. Should the Channel be a moat we bridge through closer integration with our neighbours in Continental Europe? Or should we raise the drawbridge by leaving their Club, the European Union, choosing to run our affairs without reference to them?

In ten days’ time, on 1 July, we’ll be celebrating (if that’s the word) the centennial of the start of the Battle of the Somme. In the end, it lasted four and a half months and cost – wait for it – over 1.3 million lives. That, like the whole of the First World War, represents a celebration of walls (if, again, that’s something to celebrate) of walls: over those 140 days, several hundred thousand men battled over barbed wire, ramparts, trenches – not brick and mortar, maybe, but certainly the most bitter of walls, designed to divide man from man.

The Battle of the Somme: a huge cost
What did it achieve that hasn't been done since, better, in peace?
Not all walls are as bloody as those of the First World War. But make no mistake about it: if the Trump wall is ever built, and let’s hope he never gets into position to do it, people will die on it. Don’t forget the words from A Few Good Men: “Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns.” Walls attract guns, and guns attract death. And pain. And suffering.

My grandfather served in two world wars, they came so close together. My father served in the Second. The experience of a double-helping of world-scale killing led many in the generation that were young adults in the forties and fifties to work to tear down a few walls and build a few bridges.

The Battle of the Somme was fought principally by British and French troops (supported by men from their overseas territories) on the one side, and Germans on the other. It was that enmity, between those combatants, that it was most important to end. The river Rhine had to become a waterway, not a Franco-German border to struggle over. That goal was the spur that gave birth to the European Union.

Seven decades on from the end of the Second World War, the progress made can be measured in a little town which my wife and I will be visiting again this weekend: Kehl, in Germany, but separated from France only by the Rhine. Across which the municipalities on both sides have thrown a footbridge. Dog walkers, which at one time included me, can take their pets over that bridge and give them an international walk. In principle, they should take identity papers, but I’ve never known of anyone being asked for them.

In November 1944, men died trying to secure that crossing.

The footbridge at Kehl soars across the Rhine. In peace
Surely a more appealing sight than the other one?
The graceful walkway over the river is an eloquent symbol of how much bridges are to be preferred to walls. Sadly, as the generation who fought has died out, there has been a growth in the fashion for walls again. Trump secured the Republican nomination. Intelligent, sensitive friends of mine tell me they want Britain to withdraw from the EU, because “they want their country back.”

I can assure them that neither country linked by that Rhine footbridge has been stolen from its people. They’ve merely said, “from now on we’re going to work together instead of against each other.” The EU is a symbol of that cooperation, of the same kind as the bridge, but at a larger scale.

Why would anyone want to damage either? But that’s our choice in Britain on 23 June. To reinforce the bridges or to tear them down – and revert to walls.

Just in time for the Battle of the Somme centennial.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Wet-towel time: a useful indicator for a forbidden subject

A couple of pronunciation exercises from the early days of my studies of French stick in my mind. Roughly translated, the first was:

When an Englishman meets an Englishman, he says ‘how do you do?’, and the other replies, ‘how do you do?’ When a Frenchman meets a Frenchman, he says ‘how do you do?’ and the other starts talking about his health.

The second exercise was:

When a Frenchman talks about the weather, that simply means he’s incapable of talking about anything else. But to be a good Englishman, you have to know how to talk about the weather, the weather we have had, the weather are having, and the weather we might have in the future.

Both are simply encapsulations of national stereotypes, of course, but they contain a grain of truth – particularly the second. However, in defence of the English obsession with the weather, can I just say that we have plenty to be obsessed about?

Today is the Summer Solstice, at least up here in the Northern Hemisphere. That means that from now on we’re heading back towards winter, with the days getting shorter, day by day by day. Thats the natural order of things, and in itself nothing to complain about. 

Except that that we’ve still had nothing that could properly be called a summer. Just a couple of nights ago, we lit a fire to take the chill off the living room. Last week, I turned up drenched at work, although the walk from the station to the office only takes fifteen minutes, most of it under cover.

Applying my own criterion, the weather at the moment fails what I think of as the wet-towel test.

Britain failed the wet-towel test this year
Towels get dried in the summer by hanging them on the line outside. Dried by sun and air they come back in feeling fresh, fluffy and enjoyable.

In the winter, they get dried by hanging above a radiator pumping out heat. They end up less fresh but just as dry, and even warm. A process which leaves them equally enjoyable.

There is, however, an awkward transition. In the spring and autumn, there’s an intermediate period when the weather’s not cold enough for central heating, but not dry enough for hanging towels outside. This is what I think of as the wet-towel time. It usually lasts two or three weeks.

This year it’s lasted since April. On and on and on. Hang a towel out of doors, and it would come back sopping wet with rain. Put the heating on and you swelter indoors. The consequence? Every morning I have to dry myself with a towel still damp from the day before.

Which is not enjoyable.

And a pretty dismal statement about the state of the British weather.

The weather a forbidden subject? Well, OK, maybe. But this year it’s gone beyond a joke. Honestly, my dear, it’s just too ghastly for words. 

Apart from these few I’ve written about it.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Voting Remain: it's about a lot more than a point or two on GDP

When German troops entered Alsace in Eastern France in 1940, the Gestapo arrested a great many potential opponents. One of these was the father of a friend of mine. The friend was four at the time and never saw his father again. Indeed, he never found out what had happened to him.

He told me this story soon after the introduction of the Euro, holding a Euro coin in his hand, with tears in his eyes, as he said, “I never thought I’d see the day when we had the same currency as them.”

A fluent German speaker living just a few kilometres from the border, he was a regular visitor to the other side of the Rhine. He had nothing but the most cordial feelings towards the erstwhile enemies of his country. In the Euro, he saw the embodiment of a determination that they would never be enemies again.

That’s why I find the EU debate in Britain today so lamentably trivial.

The EU isn’t about a few points on or off GDP, or the cost of holidays in continental Europe, or even whether immigration can be reduced or will rise still further. The EU and even the Euro, which is far more than merely a financial instrument, are about a political will to prefer peace over war and cooperation over conflict.

Just some coins – or something rather more significant?
That’s after a millennium and a half, since the end of the Roman Empire, regularly punctured by increasingly destructive wars.

How can we bear to make it about the accent of the woman serving us breakfast in a hotel? Or whether a Polski Sklep has opened where there used to be an Italian tailor’s? Or whether those young men cleaning our car so efficiently are Bulgarian rather than East Anglian?

That being said, there will naturally be economic consequences if we leave the EU. There would be short-term disruption. The currency is likely to fall. Unemployment would probably rise. Inward investment would fall. Tariff barriers might be erected, making it harder to export our goods to the Continent, and more expensive for us to buy imports from it.

None of this would spell catastrophe for Britain. The country would muddle through the short-term pain. It might be a little poorer, but it wouldn’t go under.

In the longer term, though, this is a world increasingly for the big battalions. China is a dominant power. India isn’t far behind. The US, smaller in population than either, remains the financial powerhouse. In such company, the European Union, the world’s biggest trading bloc with a population of half a billion, can hold its own. It will be taken seriously. Britain will not – and it may not even be Britain if, as seems likely, Scotland made a second and successful bid for independence, followed by re-entry to the EU.

Britain would be with the also-rans. The countries that get included in deals that others have negotiated. Brexiters often point to Norway as a successful European nation outside the EU. They fail to mention, or may not know, that Norway makes substantial contributions to the EU, as Britain does, and has to accept EU rules, including freedom of movement. That’s the price of trade with the EU.

So the difference between Norway and Britain is that Norway has no say in the rules it has to obey. Brexit will deprive Britain, or England-and-Wales, of its say too.

Naturally, England-and-Wales might decide not to accept EU regulations, and deal with the major economic powers alone. It could do that, but when China has to prioritise negotiations with the US, EU, Russia, India or England-and-Wales, it’s unlikely to be the minor off-shore European player that will preoccupy it most.

What this all means is that on its own, England-and-Wales would continue its decline from world power to minor island. We’ve been there before. 300 years ago a French visitor to England wrote a traveller’s book about the country: people knew little about this little, fog-shrouded island to the North West.

That was when England was on the way up, becoming a major economic power, not in its decline.

Far from spelling the end of British values, I therefore see in the European Union a way of preserving them within a structure that we can help make far more than the sum of its parts. The alternative, it seems to me, is continued descent into irrelevance. And relative poverty.

That’s my positive case for staying in the EU. 

There’s a negative case against Brexit too. It came out most clearly when Nigel Farage unveiled a new poster campaign on the theme “Breaking Point.” It showed a queue of people trying, apparently, to get into Britain, taking us to the point where we might break under the strain.

Nigel Farage showing off his poster
The photo is of Syrian refugees in Slovenia. None of them is ever likely to get anywhere near Britain. On the other hand, they’re all dark-skinned.

That makes explicit something semi-hidden inside the Brexit campaign. It draws a great deal of its strength not from economics, not from a commitment to Britain’s culture and its prospects for the future. Instead, it draws on something much uglier than that: a hatred of other people, of foreigners, above all, of other races.

As Brendan, husband of murdered MP Jo Cox, said, “She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesnt have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous.”

Hatred is poisonous. Even if there were a compelling argument for Brexit, that bitterness is enough to put me off. There’s a toxic drive behind the Leave campaign from which our nation, or any other nation, can only suffer.

That, more than anything, needs to be resisted.

Jo Cox, murdered pro-EU MP
Her husband launched an appeal for love, and against hatred.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Time to take our country back?

One of the benefits of having more money than you can really spend is that you have a little to spare for useful investments. Like buying a government.

Now don’t get me wrong. The super-rich don’t necessarily engage in what could be viewed as strictly illegal behaviour. They don’t, or at least don’t usually, pop bundles of banknotes into politicians’ pockets or transfer colossal sums to numbered accounts in off-shore banks. 

No, what they do is fund election campaigns or whole political parties.

Donations to parties or individuals are naturally made in a spirit of altruism. They come from corporations or people of huge wealth whose concern is with giving something back. They don’t expect any benefit for their contribution. 

And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything.

One gift generates an appetite for the next. Clearly, if you do things that will upset the giver, the chances of another installment sink rapidly. So it’s vital to keep these big donors on side. If that means trimming the odd policy here and there, well, that’s quite literally the price you pay.

That the British Conservatives behave this way is obvious. They are, after all, the party of the super-rich, doling out the tax cuts, and led by men – mostly men, anyway – from the great bastions of privilege, the most prestigious public (i.e. private) schools.

What’s less obvious is that Labour too is prone to this kind of behaviour. In 2009 Peter Mandelson, then a Labour Business Secretary, announced that the party was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” That demonstrated that he, and many of those around him, had been infected by the same inability as the Opposition to take on the people who exercise self-interested power with no requirement to account for it.

In a different context, a pre-Second World War Conservative Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, spoke of “power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.” We really don’t need Labour being relaxed, intensely or otherwise, about such harlotry.

Don’t forget that the people who make sure we get the best government their money can buy, already own a disproportionate proportion of the country. The Equality Trust points out that Britain not only has a high level of income inequality compared with other nations, but the situation is even worse when it comes to wealth: the top 10% own 45% of the wealth, the top 20% own 64%. At the top end of this range are the people who own the Conservatives, and too easily influence even Labour.

It’s that influence, making Labour far too intensely relaxed over matters that ought to concern it more, that is most worrying. If Labour doesn’t speak for those whose voice is least heard, who will? The Conservatives are already firmly anchored in the deepest pockets.

The EU Parliament.
But are these really the most toxic faceless men?
Our remedy is to keep Labour focused where it should be, and find a way to return it to power. At the same time, we need to turn where we can for support against the owners of the country, and the EU has shown it can help: whether on working hours, pensions or holiday pay, Brussles has adopted some measures which at least set a floor below which rights should not be pushed. A floor we badly need, with a government which decided that the appropriate response to the crash of 2007 was austerity. This is a policy that forces the poor to pay for the bankers’ foolhardiness, while preserving or even improving the living standards of the rich (incidentally giving them still more financial power to buy government).

In this context, it’s curious to hear workers demanding their country back. They aren’t wholly wrong. It certainly doesn’t belong to us. Where they’re mistaken is in thinking it ever did, that its a matter of getting it back. It’s always belonged to people with huge means, firmly rooted in this country, not some group of bureaucrats from abroad.

Far from being a threat, those bureaucrats, the term used as a popular shorthand for the EU, offer some limited bulwark against our own unscrupulous wealthy.

Workers who demand a vote to leave the EU in order to win back the country from the control of faceless bureaucrats in Brussels, need to be careful what they wish for. They won’t be taking control themselves. They’ll only reinforce the power of the austerity merchants who are inflicting such pain on us already.

Be warned: they’re not just faceless, they’re heartless too.

Monday, 13 June 2016

The Muslims are coming, the Muslims are coming!

Donald Trump tweeted in response to the killings in Orlando, “Is President Obama going to finally mention the words radical Islamic terrorism? If he doesn’t he should immediately resign in disgrace!”

The killer may have been a Muslim by birth but, as his ex-wife has pointed out, he had never been a religious radical. What he was, on the other hand, was violent: if she was no longer his wife, it was because he beat her. What’s more, the FBI was concerned about him. None of that prevented him buying powerful weapons.

Trump has followed up his tweet with another: “What has happened in Orlando is just the beginning. Our leadership is weak and ineffective. I called and asked for the ban. Must be tough.”

Orlando: scene of the worst mass killing in the US
Trump repeats his call for a ban on Muslims entering the country
The ban he means wouldn’t be on the weapons that were supplied to an obviously unhinged person. No, it would be on his fellow Muslims. However, the killer in this case, Omar Mateen, happens to have been an American citizen. It’s not clear how Trump plans to ban such people from the US, unless he believes he can expel citizens from their own country. Most civilised peoples regard it as unacceptable to deny citizens their citizenship.

Not that there’s ever been much sign of the Donald being overly guided by concerns about civilisation.

He called the Orlando attack “just the beginning.” That is a widespread fear in Britain too. Resisting Islam seems to be a theme for some supporters of the movement to withdraw the country from the EU, the ‘Brexit’ campaign. This is seen as a way, in particular, of avoiding an influx of a million and a half Muslims into the country when Turkey becomes a member of the EU.

This is an odd notion, given that there seems no prospect whatever of Turkey acceding to membership any time in the foreseeable future. Even fifteen years ago, when the country was apparently moving towards greater democracy, and firmly committed to secularism, the chances of overcoming opposition to Turkish entry were slim. Today, with the nation slipping towards theocratic autocracy under President Erdogan, membership has become even less likely. The need to resist a putative Turkish invasion nonetheless remains a concern of certain of the most vociferous proponents of Britain leaving the EU. An odd state of affairs since the easiest way of preventing Turkey acceding is to veto it – which means remaining a member ourselves.

When veteran British broadcaster Michael Parkinson interviewed Muhammad Ali in 1971, he asked about Ali’s realisation in childhood that he was being treated as a second-class citizen.

“Second class?” Ali exclaimed. “Oh no. Sixteenth class. They used to always say I was a second class citizen. […] 

Oh man, if we were second class citizens we’d be driving old Cadillacs and living good. If we were first class we’d be driving a Rolls Royce.”

That exchange came to mind while I was listening to Brexiters explaining how we had to leave the EU to keep Muslims, and in particular Turks, out of Britain. Muslims, I was told, are taking over. That, it seems, is Islam’s aim: to dominate the world and impose its will on all peoples. It’s already happening in Britain, I was assured.

This is curious. Muslims account for about 4.5% of the total population of the UK. Even if the 1.5 million turned up from Turkey, which they won’t, they’d still only represent 7%. In my experience, most Muslims in Britain fall into Ali’s category: some are wealthy but the majority are poor and under-privileged. As to the imposition of their ways, even in Luton where I live, with its 15% Muslim population, Islamic customs are strictly limited to the Muslim community. After all, when you’re sixteenth-rate citizens, what chance is there of imposing your way of life?

In any case, we’ve faced religious movements that tried to inflict their outlook on Britain before. For centuries, Christianity tried to dictate every aspect of behaviour. Not just Christianity, as it happens, but whichever particular sect of Christianity happened to be in power at the time. Failure to attend Church was grounds for suspicion. Non-adherence to the dominant faith was a disqualification from public office. The sect in power was not above burning its adversaries to death – and was allowed to get away with it.

We saw those ghastly people off. We’ve obliged our Christian communities to legislate only for themselves. We’ve freed our institutions of religious dominance.

If we could see off the powerful force of Christianity, why should we fear the triumph of the much smaller, poorer and sixteenth-class Muslim community? Surely with perhaps nineteen out of every twenty people and most of the wealth, the non-Muslims can look after themselves.

A phobia’s a morbid fear. Islamophobia’s no exception. Morbidity doesn’t tend to conduce to rational thought, which makes it a less than ideal basis for deciding Britain’s relationship with the EU. 

Nor is it the best reaction to the Orlando killings.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

East Coast Feel Good Story

It didn’t start as a feel-good story.

“Oh my God!” said the woman, suppressed panic in her voice, as the train slipped out of Peterborough station, ”I’ve left my handbag on the platform.”

She was in her late thirties or early forties, dressed in a way that said both 
”business and ”studiedly casual. She was, understandably, distressed.

Virgin East Coast train.
Scene of a minor human sympathy story
There followed a long and, on her part, tearful conversation with the ticket collector. He was shorthanded on the train and not handling the tension well. He couldn’t, at first, find it in himself to show her any sympathy.

“Where’s your ticket, madam?”

“Why,” she wailed, “in my handbag, of course. On the platform back there.”

“Well, if you don’t have your ticket, I’m going to have to ask you to leave the train.”

“Leave the train? Leave the train? You just don’t understand. I’ve just been promoted to the kind of job I really want. After nineteen years in the company. This is my first day. My new boss is waiting for me in Sheffield. I’m meeting the team this afternoon and we’re all going out this evening. That’s why I’ve brought a case.”

He glanced at her cabin-luggage sized case.

“Yes,” she said, sensing a slight hesitation, “I remembered the case. I forgot my handbag. Oh, can’t you phone the station and ask them?”

He grumbled something incomprehensible. Presumably to say that it wasn’t procedure. But he added, grudgingly, “I’ll see if I can contact them.”

He was back ten minutes later.

“They’ve found your bag. It’s in the ticket office. When are you going back?”

“Tomorrow,” she said.

“Could you pick it up then?”

“Well, I could," but she sounded disappointed. "you don’t suppose they could pop my bag on the next train to Doncaster?”

“It’s not what we do,” he said, but I could feel he was relenting.

“And look, look,” she said, thrusting her phone towards him, “here’s the receipt for my ticket.”

“OK, OK” he said, “we trust you. Don’t worry. We won’t make you leave the train.”

While he was away doing his ticket-collectory thing, she turned to me for sympathy.

“My first day in the new job. My boss is going to kill me.”

I couldn’t see it.

“Tell the story the same way you told it here. He’ll just laugh.”

“Do you think so? This is such an opportunity for me. And I was so looking forward to today.”

“You’ll be in a pub before long having a good laugh over the whole business with your friends.”

The ticket collector was back. He was on the phone.

“I know it’s not usual procedure,” he was saying, “but could you see your way to doing it? I know, I know, but it would make a big difference to her.”

He listened for a while.

“Many thanks. That’s grand. Really. Thank you.”

He hung up and turned to her.

“They’re putting your bag on the next train. If you wait on the platform at Doncaster for the next train, and head to the back, you’ll see the collector. This is my name,” he was pushing a slip of paper towards her, “show him that so he knows you’re the one I rang about and he’ll give you your bag.”

When we drew into Doncaster, she again came past the table where I was sitting.

“I’ve spoken to my boss. He thinks the whole thing’s a joke.”

I smiled at her. And, as she left the train, I could see that for the first time since she’d got on, she was smiling too.

What a good thing the ticket collector found it in him to overcome his own sense of grievance to sympathise with someone in more need than he was. And give a feel-bad story a feel-good ending.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Vote Brexit and get progressive Tories! It's brilliant.

Shock. Horror. Amazement.

One day I hear John Whittingdale, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in the British government, carefully explaining to the BBC that leaving the European Union – which would save, he assured us, £350 million a week – would allow us to invest far more in the National Health Service.

Now, that would be wonderful news. I really have only two minor cavils about it.

Firstly, and I don’t want to sound too sceptical or anything, but doesn’t that £350m a week figure fail to take into account the rebate negotiated by none other than Whittingdale’s great mentor, Margaret Thatcher? Doesn’t it also leave out of account the grants the EU makes to Britain? Wouldn’t those two effects reduce the net figure to something more like £160m a week?

Just asking.

Secondly, aren’t NHS finances being rather squeezed by the very government to which Whittingdale belongs? Aren’t we looking, right now, at a position where two out of three English acute hospitals ended last year in deficit? That in total the deficit is £2.45bn, the highest figure on record, and nearly three times higher than the figure for the year before? 

I’m only quoting the Daily Mail, a newspaper generally well enough disposed to Whittingdale’s party and government.

Is the EU the only thing stopping the government sorting this whole mess out?

Then, the next day, I read the words of a still more senior member of the same government. Michael Gove, Secretary State for Justice, tells the Observer:

The EU works for big banks, multinationals and the undeserving rich. They spend millions lobbying bureaucrats in Brussels to rig the rules in their favour. It is clearly in their interests that we remain. Leaving the EU would liberate us to invest in public services and support struggling communities. We could also supercharge support for education and science. Outside the EU we could more easily fulfil our shared ambition to have progressive, one-nation policies.

Call me naïve, but I’ve always had the impression that Gove’s government was perfectly relaxed about the undeserving rich. They’ve cut their taxes, after all, while heaping burdens on the poor and reducing any benefits they might otherwise receive. Meanwhile, again, given the falling finance for the NHS, local councils, schools and police, it’s not obvious to me that this government’s all that enthusiastic about spending more on public services.

The dastardly EU: all that stands between the Tories
and their natural progressive instincts
Of course, I may be wrong. I’m not at all joyful about the prospect of Brexit – which, it has to be said, seems seriously on the cards, if I believe what I’m hearing from people rather than the polls (and does anyone believe polls?) Still, it would be a huge comfort to know that it only took freeing ourselves from the deathlike grip of the EU for this government to set out – as Gove promises – in pursuit of “progressive, one-nation policies.”

Was the EU all that held them back? Underneath it all, were they champing at the bit to be progressives? To build a single nation and heal all divisions?

Sorry if I’ve maligned them in the past. But, in my defence, I have to say that if these were their true inclinations all along, they’ve been hiding them pretty well.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Ways to remember the Holocaust

It was an odd experience visiting the Auschwitz extermination camp.

My Jewish background made a trip inevitable, I suppose, in time. I’d always put it off, as I tend to be far too easily moved by this kind of thing. An extract from Schindler’s List, say, or perhaps the hopeless face of a young man or an old woman waiting for the next step in their fate, a mystery to them but all too well-known to us, can bring tears to my eyes.

But with my wife being sent several times to work in Kraków, the Polish town only an hour and a half from Auschwitz, and having joined her there for the second time, I felt it couldn’t be put off any longer. I had to go and see for myself.

Well, I’ve been. Despite my fears of being overwhelmed. And it moved me far less than I expected.

In the first place, it was all terribly familiar. I’ve seen too many photos, too many films. Even the sign with its great lie, ‘Arbeit macht frei’, ‘Work will set you free’, seemed familiar and, to tell the truth, rather smaller than I expected.

In addition, the place is now a museum and feels like one. The barrack blocks are cold, bitter, uninviting, but they’re sterile, as are the walkways between them. Get there after 10:00 am and you have to walk around with a guide, though I noticed some people who weren’t: we should have emulated them since our guide spoke uninterruptedly, barely drawing breath, leaving no time for the kind of silence real awe requires.

Most important of all, there are only buildings left. Naturally, I’m delighted there are no more inmates, but it was their presence and their treatment that gave the place its horror. Without them, it’s merely a collection of ugly barrack blocks. Only the barbed wire felt sinister, as it was obviously designed to keep in, whereas when we see that kind of fence these days, it’s usually intended to keep people out.

Barbed wire and barrack blocks at Auschwitz I
The sign warns about high-tension electricity –
that is, it warns people 
outside: we don't want them getting hurt
Even barbed wire, though, isn’t as eloquent as the human stories. That was brought home to me when I came across an enlarged extract from a photo of Jews walking towards the gas chamber. It showed three young boys walking side by side, one holding the hand of what looks like his younger brother. Now that was harrowing. Little boys. Like my sons once were. My sons would, indeed, have been in that same position had Hitler got his hands on them: a Jewish grandmother would have been enough to send them down that deadly walk too.

The boys, off to the gas chamber
People are what give the Auschwitz story its searing quality, not physical structures. That’s why I found the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague far more moving. It has been plastered and whitewashed from floor to ceiling. On its walls, have been painted thousands of names in stark red and dates of birth and death in grim black. Old people, young people, children. An entire community, the 78,000 Czech and Moravian Jews with their hopes and failures, dreams and achievements, wiped out. To top it all, there are the paintings by Jewish children made in Theresienstadt concentration camp under the direction of Bauhaus-trained Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who was herself killed in Auschwitz.

Names and dates of death of an entire murdered community
Those were sights that brought tears to my eyes. I tried to guess the stories of victim after victim. Born in 1935, murdered in 1942. Who does that? And why?

Back in Kraków, in the old Jewish quarter, we visited the Kupa synagogue, one of four that are once more open for worship. At the Jewish community centre – motto ‘Building a Jewish future in Kraków’ – we were told there were just 120 practising Jews in a city which once held more than 60,000. In all, 500 residents who recognise their Jewish roots, whether they choose to worship or not, have registered with the Kraków Community.

The Kupa Synagogue
An active centre of Jewish worship again
I feel no inclination to practice Judaism myself. If others wish to, or indeed to be active Muslims, Catholics, Protestants or members of any other faith, that seems to be their choice and none of my concern.

On the other hand, when I see Jews begin to organise again in a city from which their predecessors had been so thoroughly eradicated, that feels like more than the exercise of a right to worship. It doesn’t matter that the beginnings are so small. It’s still the living reasserting their claims over their would-be murderers.

I find that a far more moving testimonial than Auschwitz.